In my next pieces, I want to talk in about my teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s statement, “To get a letter from emptiness is to get a letter from home.” In this first piece I will just focus on the term “empty” which is used in Buddhist teaching quite differently than we normally think about it in the West.
For Buddhists, emptiness has no relation to the depression that many people are experiencing now with both the pandemic and the social chaos swirling around since George Floyd’s murder.
Emptiness means “free of own being.” Everything is empty because absolutely nothing stands alone. Everything we can point to (people, chairs, grass, sky, cars), are merely tentative expressions of one seamless, ever-changing landscape of “interbeing.” When we let go of our fixation on labels, we experience a wonderful interconnectedness. And this feeling of connection to the world around us naturally elicits compassion and love for others who are suffering. Emptiness and compassion are handmaidens in Buddhist teaching because everything we think of as being separate is an expression of the pulsating dance of life.
There are three misunderstandings Westerners often have about emptiness; emotional, ethical and meditative.
Emotional: When we say, “I feel empty,” as I said above, we generally mean that we are feeling lonely, isolated, hopeless, or depressed. We are submerged in an emotional undertow that keeps us from the simple joys of living, which is quite the opposite from Buddhist emptiness. We have lost the resilience that is part and parcel of Zen practice and life.
Ethical: People sometimes have perceptions about spiritual teachers which are fraught with misunderstanding and can be quite dangerous. “So and so lives in the absolute- in emptiness- so his behavior can’t be judged by ordinary standards.” Again, if someone is really acting from emptiness, they feel deeply connected to others and will simply not treat them in a harmful or inhumane manner.
Meditative: Some people have the misconception that in “advanced” meditation we experience an “empty” state of mind in which there are no thoughts. But the teaching is pretty clear about this; we may experience an empty state of mind on occasion when we are meditating with some vigor and determination, but this is temporary and not necessarily even conducive to liberation. The interconnectedness we feel in Buddhist emptiness is present whether the mind is full of thoughts or not.
Is there a word in English that works better that “emptiness” to convey this? The closest two that I can think of are “boundaryless” and “boundlessness” but neither of these exactly fit what Buddhist teachers mean. “Boundarylessness” does not work at all, because boundaries are so important for day to day psychological and spiritual health and “boundlessness” has a somewhat similar connotation.
Why do we teach about “emptiness” at all? The answer is simple. We suffer in large part because we grasp after things thinking that they are fixed, substantial, real, and capable of being possessed. Through our meditation practice we have the opportunity to relax and open into the clarity of connectedness in which we realize that those so-called things are not separate things after all. In a time like this when most people’s emotions are out of whack, we need to be reminded that we are continually supported by the life force that Suzuki refers to as, “being at your mother’s bosom.”
He said, “I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.” And another time, speaking of the feeling tone, he offered, “Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.”
In my next piece, I will move on to discussing the statement itself.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher